Last night, I had the privilege of moderating a community listening session focused on the long-standing issue of police accountability in Minneapolis. The listening session was hosted by city council members Alondra Cano, Cam Gordon, and Elizabeth Glidden. While nearly two hundred community members showed up, along with youths from We Win Institute, and panelists, Dr. Rose Brewer, Jennifer Singleton, and Prof. Jason Sole, Minneapolis police chief Harteau was conspicuously absent from the event. Just two hours prior to her expected arrival, Chief Harteau cancelled her participation, citing "public safety' concerns. The chief purportedly received information from a long-standing resident of North Minneapolis that there would be planned disruptions during the event, the threat of physical harm, and agitators. When pressed to name her source, the chief declined to do so, and on the word of an unnamed informant, abruptly withdrew from participation in the event. Also, the chief's referencing of North Minneapolis in her comments, (an area of the city with a large African American population) whether intentional or not, served to reinforce negative racial stereotypes about those who live on the Northside as possibly being "threats" to public safety. Indeed, the comment section under the chief's posting on Facebook shows mostly white commenters calling individuals "thugs" and affirming the chief's decision to withdraw from the event.
The chief's absence was deeply disappointing
To say the community was disappointed by the chief's decision is a gross understatement. Many were expecting the chief to attend the event in good faith and listen to the concerns of the people regarding issues of police accountability, allegations of police abuse, and the need for stronger police/community relations. At the forum, we heard disturbing accounts of police harassment, racial profiling, unjustified arrests, and targeting of homeless individuals within the community. Folks also expressed frustration about the lack of responsiveness by the chief, the mayor, and other elected officials to the cries for relief from rampant police abuse.
These concerns are not new to Minneapolis residents, yet the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the murder of an unarmed young black man by police give rise to a new sense of urgency in dealing with the crisis of police misconduct in our own backyard. The chief's failure to show up at the forum and actually hear the voices of the community sends a strong message about the culture of the police department and shows an overall unwillingness to sincerely address the concerns that are being raised.
Has police abuse become par for the course?
For far too long, we have read account after account and even watched videos of unarmed African American men being beaten by Minneapolis police officers, with limited to zero accountability for such conduct. There is not one elected official within the city of Minneapolis that can claim ignorance of the pervasive nature of police misconduct in the city. Indeed, the city attorney's office is routinely permitted to settle excessive force cases, while nary anyone bats an eyebrow. It's as though police abuse has been normalized as an ordinary part of our lives in the city, and as long as we can keep cutting checks to pay victims and hide the problems, then everything is okay. Well, it's not okay. This has to stop.
Let's get serious about solutions
In order to shift things in the right direction, there are a few things that need to happen: 1) We need to hold the chief accountable for her withdrawal from the community listening session by demanding a public meeting that includes the mayor and the chief to explain the circumstances surrounding the chief's absence; 2) We need to inquire of the mayor about the scope of her plans to ensure police accountability over and above the implementation of body cameras. Last night's forum demonstrated the breadth and scope of the problems are much deeper than body cameras alone will be able to resolve; 3) We need a comprehensive assessment of the overall effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the Minneapolis criminal justice system that looks at who is being stopped and searched on the streets, the rate of charging of low level, nonviolent offenses such as lurking, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and obstruction of legal process, the annual costs to the city of such low level arrests, and the health-related and economic impacts on individuals and communities when subjected to such punitive treatment. (We do not need another study, but a critical examination of data already available.) The results should cause us to repeal ordinances that contribute to the problems and revamp the system, where needed; 4) We need a coordinated community response that includes capturing negative police encounters on video, making rapid reports of such encounters, challenging unlawful stops, searches, and arrests in court, and showing up at City Hall until we see the changes that are needed; and 5) We need our Caucasian brothers and sisters to stand with us in demanding police accountability. It is not equitable for communities of color to both suffer the effects of police misconduct and then to accept full ownership for addressing problems that we did not create, nor have control over. White people should be just as outraged by police abuse as people of color and resolve to work diligently to address these challenges, as a matter of human dignity.
We are Ferguson
In light of the magnitude of issues we face with policing in Minneapolis, we can't afford to have an absent chief at forums designed to facilitate stronger trust between community and police. There is too much at stake for this to occur. While some express concern about whether Minneapolis will become another Ferguson, I posit that we have already become Ferguson, and have been for a long time. We just don't know it yet.